It’s about 4am on a beautiful morning at the end of May.
The sun has not yet managed to raise its head above the horizon to brighten the day. The denizens of the night are preparing themselves for another day of inactivity while the early risers are stirring from their slumber. We are starting our walk on Holmbury Hill where the nightjar is issuing his final territorial proclamation, a long drawn-out churring, before he settles down to roost for the day on a nearby pine branch. The female is already ensconced on her two dapples white eggs on a scrape in the heather. A roebuck wanders through the old dry bracken from last year, the fresh new shoots already showing. His antlers, shed in the previous autumn, have regrown and have lost their velvet. The doe has already dropped her twin fawns, always alert to danger, ready to lead away predators such as foxes and, unfortunately, dogs. The fawns will sit tight as she plays decoy. It will be a long hard summer with many dangers to be avoided.
If we happen to be in the right place at the right time, we could be lucky enough to see badger cubs venturing out into the big world. Their first forays would probably have been towards the end of April with many games to play around the sett before they venture farther afield. Foxes may be seen as they look for food for their cubs, with local dustbins being favourite raiding spots, The large rabbit population is not often seen during the day but is a constant food supply. As we continue our walk across the Hurtwood, a song thrush starts the dawn chorus with its repetitive but nonetheless beautiful song. Oh, that we had as many of these lovely birds as we used to have!
Robins join in the singing as if in unison, swelling the noise to greater levels. Taking their turn, as if in some prearranged piece of music, blackbirds and wrens are soon followed by the staccato burst of chaffinches, the chiffchaff’s two-note rhythm and the delightful cadences of many willow warblers. As the sun rises above the slopes of Leith Hill, a small dull brown bird, the garden warbler, belies its looks with one of the most musical of songs. Its close cousin, the blackcap, prefers the lower slopes and fields below the hill. It takes a trained ear to distinguish between the two. Indeed, bird “watching” in the spring and summer requires a trained ear to make the best of a good walk. Dense foliage can make it difficult at the best of times to identify, or even see, all but the biggest or boldest birds in woodland.
Before we leave Holmbury Hill, it is always worth looking out for a scarce bird in this part of the country, the redstart. One of the most colourful of our local summer visitors, they arrive at the beginning of May and will be sitting on up to seven eggs by the end of the month.
As we leave Holmbury Hill and traverse the footpath across the farmland on or way to Pitch Hill, we may see a variety of raptors. Sparrowhawks now breed in good numbers in and around the Hurtwood, their numbers having increased rapidly in the wake of the massive decline induced by DDT and other chemical sprays in the Sixties. The hobby, once an annual breeder on Holmbury Hill, is now becoming a much more regular sight again, most often seen chasing the local house martins, swifts and swallows, with dragonflies also forming a large part of their diet. Kestrels can also be spotted hovering over likely patches of undergrowth or grass, waiting for an unsuspecting mouse or vole.
Pitch Hill supports much the same population of bird and animals as do the other wooded areas of the Hurtwood. The areas of large Scots pine are home to innumerable goldcrests as well as nesting coal tits, chaffinches, robins and wrens. Crows and magpies maraud through the trees feeding their young at the expense of the smaller birds. Many smaller birds such as tits, nuthatches, and treecreepers vie for the limited number of nesting holes in the trees. Areas that were devastated by fire in times gone by contain few mature trees, so competition for space is strong. Any nest boxes erected are soon taken with broods of up to ten or more fledglings being produced in a good year.
The cuckoo, arriving as it does during the second week in April, will be causing havoc with the local dunnock or tree pipit populations. Although their eggs have been found in the nests of more than 50 different species of British birds, there is a theory that cuckoos will generally predate the species that originally reared them. With an egg laid every other day for up to 30 days, a good number of foster parents are required. The adults leave for Africa around the end of June, our earliest departing migrant.
We leave Pitch Hill heading west past the old Windmill, cross the road at Horseblock Hollow and follow the path along the escarpment on Winterfold, where we may see another redstart or another scarce summer migrant, the wood warbler, whose easily recognisable vocalising consists of two entirely different songs. Its trill starts slowly and picks up speed rapidly while its “piu, piu, piu” song is somewhat more musical. The south-facing slopes of the Hurtwood hills with their low ground cover are ideal for this ground nesting bird, whose nest is a domed construction made of grass and bracken fibres, lined with grass and hairs.
Woodpeckers abound, with the impressive green woodpecker, feeding on the ample supply of ants, probably more often seen than its smaller relative, the great spotted woodpecker. The wood pigeon nests almost anywhere, while its close relative, the stock dove, vies with the jackdaw and tawny owl for the larger tree holes,
To see, or more likely hear, the migrant turtle dove, we cross Winterfold Heath Road and make our way to Winterfold Heath, an area of some 20 acres of heathland reclaimed from the pine forest in the early Nineties. A few years ago this open area was the haunt of breeding stonechats, woodlarks, tree pipits and nightjars. The encroaching pine soon made it unsuitable. However, with the kind permission of the landowner, Mrs Bray, and the enthusiastic help of the Surrey Heathland Project most of the pines were removed and the heather allowed to flourish. With a little patience, we can be sure of catching a sight of at least one pair of stonechats and, probably, their first brood. Tree pipits are a delight to watch as the male performs his parachuting flight song from the treetops. The heath is also home to upwards of 15 pairs of breeding linnets, as well as several pairs of whitethroats, dunnocks and wrens, plus the occasional yellowhammer. Willow warblers have largely forsaken the open heath but can be seen and heard in the surrounding birch. The adjacent areas of small pine and birch are perfect for the turtle doves and the local jays. There is no more emotive sound of summer than the purring of the turtle dove as the evening draws in.
To hear the descending trill of the woodlark we should make our way to the western end of the Hurtwood, where good numbers have been present in recent years. Recent surveys have indicated a large increase in the national woodlark population, whose numbers were once down to nearly 200 breeding pairs.
It is fitting to finish our day’s wanderings on Winterfold Heath as the sun dips below the hills behind Guildford Cathedral and St Martha’s, both of which can be seen from the heath. As the light fades and human noise decreases, the strange duck-like call of the woodcock can be heard as he roves around his territory. Tawny owls call, their demanding youngsters expecting a good night’s feeding, and the nightjar leaves his perch, churring for a while before he takes over incubation duties from the female, the night’s duties being shared by them both. If we are lucky, we will experience one of those beautiful sunsets that make us feel as though it’s good to be alive, with another day to look forward to tomorrow.